On the rugby field nothing could stop Jonah Lomu. The All Blacks star rampaged through opposition teams in a way not seen either before or since, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that the whole time he was battling a rare kidney disease. It was hard to countenance the idea of someone who was the epitome of strength being so ravaged by illness on the inside. On Wednesday, Lomu died unexpectedly at his home in Auckland at the age of 40.
Since the news was announced, tributes have poured in for the rugby legend. The praise has been effusive, and not just for his unique ability. Even his fiercest rivals on the pitch spoke glowingly about his humility off it. He was a true gentle giant.
“He was a giant of a man, someone who could play the game both brutally and beautifully, but off the pitch he was such a naturally nice guy, he had time for anybody and everybody and was such a gentleman,” wrote former England player Jeremy Guscott on the BBC Sport website.
Guscott, more than, most remembers all too well what a devastating force Lomu was. He was in the opposition ranks the day Lomu became a global superstar. The attention of the world had been on South Africa in the summer of 1995, as the country staged its first major event since the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela. But in the semifinals of the tournament, it was Lomu who stole the show.
At the time Lomu was aged just 20, and had only gotten into the New Zealand squad because of an injury to another player. After scoring three tries earlier in the competition, it was against England that he put on one of the all-time great individual performances. Lomu finished with a spectacular four tries, but it was the manner of them that truly bewildered. He simply ran through the England team. His first try in particular was simply extraordinary as he recovered from being tackled by one English defender to stumble forward, recover his balance and run right over another. The photo of him trampling through Mike Catt is one of the great indelible sporting images.
At 6'5 and 260 pounds, he had the physique of a player who would traditionally have been utilized in the forward positions, providing the brawn in the scrum. Initially, this is where Lomu started his career. But Lomu possessed something never before seen before for a man of his size on the rugby field -- incredible speed and nimble footwork that meant he was deployed on the wing. Incredibly, he could run the 100 meters in 10.8 seconds.
England captain Will Carling responded with thoughts that were surely echoed by most non-New Zealand rugby players around the world.
“I am hoping not to come across him again,” Carling said after Lomu single-handedly ripped through his team. “He's a freak -- and the sooner he goes away the better.”
South Africa would famously go on to beat the All Blacks, who had suffered a bout of food poisoning the night before, in the final and be handed the trophy by Mandela. Lomu’s impact, though, was unaffected by the lack of a winner’s medal.
Even in the age before the internet was in every home, the sight of him rampaging through opponents went around the world. One place it reached was the United States, where Rupert Murdoch was watching in Los Angeles. It proved a pivotal moment in the history of rugby union.
“Who is that player?” Murdoch is reported to have asked. “We must have him, we must have him.”
Murdoch promptly handed over $555 million over 10 years to SANZAR (South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby) to get the broadcasting rights to Super Rugby, a competition between the top clubs in the three southern hemisphere teams. The move applied further pressure to the sport’s governing body to do away with rugby’s amateur status and finally declare it professional in August 1995.
It changed the sport, and also ensured Lomu remained in rugby union. At the time there was a major threat of him opting for the then more lucrative rival code of rugby league. Lomu could also have gone to the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys are thought to have offered him a huge deal to make the switch to the U.S.
In another example of his appeal, Jonah Lomu Rugby was released in 1997, the Sony Playstation’s first rugby union game. Even people who had never watched a rugby match were aware of Lomu and what he could do. The man of Tongan descent who emerged from a tough, abusive upbringing in Auckland had transcended the sport in the way no other player had done before, or has done so since.
He changed the way the sport was played, too. Since he made his mark, a string of bigger, more powerful players have emerged in the skill positions. None, though, have yet matched Lomu’s impact. He still holds the joint record for most tries in the Rugby World Cup, with 15, after adding eight more in the 1999 edition.
His achievements are made all the more remarkable because came while suffering from nephrotic syndrome. His kidneys were not functioning properly, leaving him anemic and often exhausted.
“People say to me that semifinal must have been the best game you ever played,” Lomu told The Telegraph ahead of this year’s World Cup about his performance against England in 1995. “And I say yeah, maybe. But imagine what I could have done if I was healthy.”
Lomu’s career was greatly disrupted by the illness. He missed the 2003 World Cup, when he should have been in his prime, and the following year underwent a kidney transplant. Incredibly, he made a comeback to the sport with the aim of making it to the 2007 World Cup, but by then had been forced to retire. Then in the hours following the opening ceremony of the 2011 World Cup the kidney he had received failed, and he nearly lost his life. When the moment arrived on Wednesday, he was undergoing regular dialysis and awaiting a second kidney transplant. The hope he expressed only months earlier of seeing his two sons, aged six and five, make it to adulthood had been tragically ended.
His legacy, however, both on the rugby field and away from it, will continue to live on.